As of Aug. 22, over 140,000 homes have been damaged in the Louisiana floods this summer, especially in the Baton Rouge area. And yet, despite the rampant destruction and tragedy, there are those who reach out to those affected and offer their help, even from far away. From food drives to donations from distant family members, social media has made recovery from and awareness of disasters easier. However, social media might also have an additional unfortunate effect — it might allow people to easily become passive observers rather than active participants in recovery.
One must look no further than a search for “#batonrougeflood” on social media websites to see examples of community support and the beginnings of recovery. From free haircuts for flood victims to rescue efforts for lost and abandoned pets, social media networks present several images and videos of charitable activity. Yet, one may notice something striking about the images, videos and news reports. The organizations performing charitable or rescue work are largely those that are expected to do such work, like U.S. government agencies, the Red Cross, local emergency services and other charitable organizations.
The impressive human capital that social media can gather and direct with astounding efficiency does not seem to be as active in these cases as in other times of recent national anguish. Social media websites exploded in activity after the notorious police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Sterling’s name alone was referenced in over one million Twitter posts in the day following his death. Now, with thousands of people displaced and a similar number of homes damaged, a Twitter hashtag related to the Louisiana floods does not even appear in the 40 most popular at the time of this article’s writing. Clearly, the nationwide social media network is not coming to the assistance of the people of Baton Rouge and other affected areas of Louisiana the same way that it did when Alton Sterling was shot in that same city.
With that in mind, it may be that this is a particularly pronounced case of the bystander effect, the observable trend that individuals who observe tragedies from afar with the knowledge that somebody else is already taking action to help are much less likely to engage in similar charitable behavior. Anonymous bystanders, by their nature, have much less motivation to engage in helpful behavior.
However, it was clearly evident from the aforementioned police shooting examples that people from all backgrounds can join in solidarity to protest injustice served to singular individuals. The people who took the step at the time of the shootings to make a post of support for those affected by police brutality are likely no closer in relation to the individual victims than they are to the thousands of people displaced in Louisiana’s floods. Yet, the public outpouring of support was clearly greater in the former case.
This has not gone unnoticed by citizens of Louisiana. Baton Rouge resident Jerry Washington claimed that he hadn’t “seen one Black Panther boat or one Black Lives Matter boat. All I see is our own people from our own city saving us.” Keeping the bystander effect in mind, he is likely correct. These movements are not coalescing behind the community that they claimed to seek to serve just over a month ago.
There is ample evidence to support this point. The Facebook page for Black Lives Matter, for example, made only one post about the floods; it referred victims to an individual photographer who offered to take photos of those affected for free. Nowhere to be found was a fundraiser, a call to march for awareness, a community assistance project, or any other charitable work performed by the organization for displaced citizens. When it is taken into consideration that the population of Louisiana is nearly one-third black and that Baton Rouge in particular is over one-half black, it is deeply concerning that a movement dedicated to reaffirming the value of black lives is not making a concerted effort to help the very people it claims to represent and protect.
The bystander effect is a powerful phenomenon. It is also understandable; people generally do not seek additional responsibilities and duties, especially if they do not stand to gain from them. However, social media allows even remote observers from thousands of miles away to contribute to recovery from catastrophe with a few clicks. Even if the anonymous and detached observer does not have enough reason to contribute, it is certain that large and powerful social movements do when their communities and members are deeply affected by tragedy, even if it is natural in origin. Social movements of all sorts should use media to help their constituents. In the current state of affairs, two things are certain. Recovery for people whose lives and livelihoods have been ruined by natural disaster is going to be long and hard without the help of their fellow citizens, and people who scroll through social media can make a substantial difference by donating some time and effort to helping those very people.